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BBC – Future – The deepest hole we've ever dug



The lakes, forests, mists and snow of Kola Peninsula deep in the Arctic Circle make this corner of Russia seem like a scene from a fairytale. In the midst of natural beauty are the ruins of an abandoned Soviet research station. In the middle of the crumbling building is a heavy, rusty metal cap embedded in the concrete floor and secured by a ring of thick and rusty metal screws.

This is, according to some, the entrance to hell.

This is the Kola Superdeep Borehole, the deepest artificial hole in the Earth and the deepest artificial point on Earth. The 40.230-foot-deep structure (12.2 km) is so deep that the locals swear that you can hear the cries of souls tortured in hell. The Soviets needed nearly 20 years to drill that far, but the drill was still only about a third of the way through the crust to the mantle when the project came to a standstill in the chaos of post-Soviet Russia.

The deep-sea drilling of the Soviets is not alone. During the Cold War, there was a race of superpowers to drill as deep as possible into the earth's crust ̵

1; and even reach the mantle of the planet itself.

Now the Japanese want to try.

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"It was at the time of the Iron Curtain when drilling began," says Uli Harms of the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program, a young scientist at the German Rival has worked around the Kola hole. "And there was certainly a competition between us. One of the main reasons was that the Russians simply were not really open with their data.

"When the Russians started drilling, they claimed they had found free water – and most scientists simply did not believe that. There was a general understanding among Western scientists that the crust 5km below was so dense that water could not penetrate. "

" The ultimate goal of the project [new] is to preserve living samples of the Earth's mantle, there is now, "says Sean Toczko, program manager of the Japanese Agency for Marine Geosciences. "In places like Oman, you can find a cloak near the surface, but that's the cloak it was millions of years ago."

"It's the difference between a living dinosaur and a fossilized dinosaur bone."

If the earth is like an onion, then the crust is like the thin skin of the planet. It is only 25 miles (40 km) thick. In addition, the 1,800-mile-long mantle and behind it, right in the center of the earth, is the core.

Like the space race, the race to explore this unknown "deep border" was a demonstration of engineering skill, cutting-edge technology, and the "right thing." The scientists went to where no man had been. The rock samples that were able to deliver these super-deep holes may have been as important to science as anything NASA brought from the Moon. The only difference was that the Americans did not win the race this time. In fact, nobody really did.

The Soviets began drilling in the Arctic Circle in 1970

. The US had started the first drill in the race to explore the deep boundary. By the late 1950s, the wonderfully named American Miscellaneous Society had come up with the first serious plan to drill to the mantle. The society that turned into a drinking club was an informal group made up of the leaders of the American scientific community. Their break when drilling through the earth's crust into the mantle was named Project Mohole, named after the Mohorovičić discontinuity that separates the crust from the mantle John Steinbeck – opted for a shortcut through the Pacific soil off Guadalupe, Mexico.

The advantage of drilling through the seabed is that the earth's crust is thinner there; The downside is that the thinnest part of the crust is usually where the ocean is deepest.

The Soviets began drilling the Arctic Circle in 1970. Finally, in 1990, the German Continental Drilling Program (KTB) began in Bavaria – and finally drilled to 9.6 km.

As with the mission to the Moon, the problem was that the technologies needed to make these expeditions successful had to be reinvented from scratch.

As a project Mohole 1961 began to drill deep-sea drilling in the seabed because oil and gas were still far away. So far, no one has invented essential technologies, such as dynamic positioning, that allow a drillship to remain in place above the wellbore. Instead, the engineers had to improvise. They installed a propeller system on the sides of their drill ship to keep it stable over the hole.

Two years before Neil Armstrong took to the moon, the US Congress canceled funding for the Mohole project as costs spiraled out of control

One of the biggest challenges for German engineers was the need to get as vertical a hole as possible drill. The solution they have found is now a standard technology in the world's oil and gas fields.

"What was clear to the experience of the Russians was that you need to drill as vertically as possible, otherwise you increase the torque of the drills and kinks in the hole," says Uli Harms. "The solution was to develop vertical drilling systems. This is now an industry standard originally developed for KTB – and worked up to 7.5 km. For the last 1.5 to 2 km, the hole was almost 200 meters from the vertical.

"We tried to apply some of the Russian techniques in the early '90s or late' 80s as Russia became more open and ready to work with the West," he adds. "Unfortunately, it was not possible to get the equipment in time."

All of these expeditions ended with some frustration. There were false starts and blockages. Then there were the high temperatures their machines had encountered in this deep underground, the costs and the politics – all this made the dream of the scientists to drill deeper and break the record for the deepest hole.

Two years before Neil Armstrong went on the moon, the US Congress canceled funding for the Mohole project as costs spiraled out of control. The few meters of basalt they could bring up today cost around $ 40 million.

When the Dutch artist Lotte Geevan lowered her microphone, protected by a heat shield, into the German borehole, a deep rumble broke out that scientists could not explain

Then the Kola-Superdeep borehole got under way. Drilling was discontinued in 1992 when the temperature reached 180 ° C (356 ° F). This was twice as much as expected at this depth and deeper drilling was no longer possible. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was no money to finance such projects – and three years later, the entire facility was shut down. Now the deserted place is a destination for adventurous tourists.

The German borehole has been spared the fate of others. The huge rig is still there – and now a tourist attraction – but today the crane only lowers gauges. The site is, so to speak, an observatory of the planet – or even an art gallery.

When Dutch artist Lotte Geevan lowered her microphone, protected by a heat shield, into the German borehole, a deep rumbling sounded that the scientists could not hear. I explain, a rumble that made her "feel very small; It was the first time in my life that this great ball we live on came to life and it sounds haunting, "she says. "Some people thought it sounded like hell. Others thought they could hear the planet breathing. "

" It was planned to drill deeper than the Soviets, "says Harms," ​​but we had not even reached our permitted 10 km (6.25 miles). Then, where we drilled, it was much hotter than where the Russians were. It was pretty clear that it would be much harder for us to go deeper.

"At that time it was also the early 90s in Germany and there was no good reason to raise additional funds to go deeper. German unification cost so much money.

It's hard not to get rid of the feeling that the race for the mantle is an updated version of the famous novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. While scientists do not expect to find a hidden cave full of dinosaurs, they describe their projects as "expeditions".

"We considered it an expedition because it really took some time to prepare and execute, says Harms, and because you really go to no-man's-land where nobody has been before, and that's really unusual today. [19659013] The mission of these missions is that they are like exploration of planets – Damon Teagle

"There's always something that really surprises you, and especially when you're in a deep crusted area." 19659009] "And when we talk about KTB or the Kola Superdeep, then the theories behind the project's goals were 30 to 40 years old at the time of drilling."

"The thing about these missions is that they are like a planetary exploration, "says Damon Teagle, professor of geochemistry at the School of Ocean and Earth Science, Southampton National Oceanography Center at the University of Southampton, who is instrumental in the new, from Japan-led project was involved. "They are pure science companies and you never know exactly what you'll find."

"At hole 1256 [a hole drilled by the Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP) and Ocean Drilling Program (ODP)] we were the first to see intact sea crust. Nobody had come to it before. It was really exciting. There are always surprises. "

Today, M2M-MoHole to Mantle is one of the most important projects of the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP). As with the original Mohole project, scientists plan to drill through the seabed, where the crust is only about 6 km deep. The goal of the US $ 1 billion (£ 775 million) Ultradeep drilling project is to recover in-situ mantle rock for the first time in human history.

"To do so would be an amazing undertaking and requires a lot of commitment from Japan," says Teagle, who is involved in the project.

Despite the importance of the project, the giant drill ship Chikyū became this almost 20 years ago The Chikyu uses a GPS system and six adjustable computer-controlled jets that can change the position of the huge ship by only 50 cm.

"The idea is that this ship will pick up the touch and continue the work with the original one Mohole Project started 50 years ago, "says Sean Toczko, program manager, Japan Agency for Marine Earth Science." Superdeep wells have told us a lot about the thick continental crust, which we're trying to find out more about the border between Crust and Mantle

These expeditions are extremely expensive – and therefore difficult to repeat – Uli Harms

"The main point is that there are three H Main candidates are websites. One of them is in front of Costa Rica, one in front of Baha and one in front of Hawaii. "

Each of these sites compromises the depth of the ocean, the distance from the well site, and the need to have a base on the shore can support a billion-dollar operation around the clock at sea. "The infrastructure can be built, but it costs time and money," adds Toczko.

"Ultimately, it's really about costs," says Harms. "These expeditions are extremely expensive and therefore difficult to repeat. They can cost hundreds of millions of euros – and only a small percentage is actually destined for the geosciences, the rest for technological development and, of course, for the operation.

"We need inspirational politicians to talk about the value of these expeditions."

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